Rolando Minuti

1The documentation which European culture had available on Japan in the beginning of the 18th century was not greatly developed, but did provide considerable information. Even the closing of Japan to missionaries, definitive beginning in 1637, did not interrupt a communication that remained active thanks to the Dutch East India Company; it was translated by many travel narratives and information disseminated through European culture by famous publications like the Recueil des voyages qui ont servi à l’établissement et aux progrès de la Compagnie des Indes orientales, published in Amsterdam starting in 1702.

2Montesquieu doubtless shows the same interest as many Europeans for Japanese reality and if, as for other aspects of his interest for the extra-European world, his knowledge is not that of an erudite but rather the result of a sometimes partial choice, it does not fail to be attentive – as his collections of thoughts and reading notes show us – and to furnish useful material to enrich important subjects, such as penal law or the relationship between political institutions and religion, which have central importance in L’Esprit des lois.

3It is no doubt in the work of Engelbert Kämpfer, translated into French in 1729 under the title Histoire naturelle, civile et ecclésiastique de l’empire du Japon from the English edition of the text, a work that long constituted a basic reference for European culture, from which Montesquieu drew most of his documentation, based on the Latin edition (1727) which he owned at La Brède (Catalogue, no. [‣]). We can see it most clearly in the Spicilège: fragments nos. 517, 523, 524 consist of local annotations of the work of the German traveler, mixed with personal considerations related to an attentive reading of the text. To his reading of Kämpfer, Montesquieu could add his consultation of the Dutch Recueil (to which the Spicilège testifies as well as the dossier 2506 of the manuscripts at La Brède, as well as the notes of L’Esprit des lois) and even a few pages from the famous work of Father Du Halde, Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique et physique de l’Empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise. These works constitute the documentary base of his information about Japan, the singularity of which, with respect to the general picture of Asian nations, appears clearly and offers a specific subject of reflection in L’Esprit des lois.

4One of the first questions Montesquieu asks concerns the origins of the Japanese nation. Though in the Spicilège (no. 517) he indeed seems to agree with the common opinion that derived the Japanese from the Chinese, in the Pensées the differences between Japanese and Chinese are emphasized (Pensées, no. 1775 and 1839, where he refers especially to the question of land ownership), and their direct relationship with the great conquerors of Asia, the Tartars, is at the same time recalled (Pensées no. 1730, where the relationship between Japan and the Mogul empire is emphasized). But this change on the origins of the Japanese nation does not resolve the problem of the particular characters of Japanese despotism. The “precarious spirit” proper to all despotic states and especially evident in the Mogul empire does indeed manifest itself in Japan in a very particular way that deserves explanation, which Montesquieu tries to give in L’Esprit des lois.

5The exceptional harshness of Japanese laws is a fact to which Montesquieu pays attention in book VI, beginning with an observation: the natural conformity between the particular severity of penal law and the “spirit” proper to despotic states, the principle of which is fear (ch. 9). This severity does not imply greater efficacity of the penal law, but, as the Persian Letters ([‣]) already recalled, it was but the consequence and adaptation of the laws to a psychology characterized by acclimatization to violence and cruelty. Much less severe penalties would have had much greater efficacity in moderate states. But in Japan (EL, VI, 13), the severity of the laws, as numerous sources attested – particularly Kämpfer’s History of which Montesquieu doubtless exaggerated the conclusions – was no doubt exceptional even with relation to other Asian states. In one of the fragments of L’Esprit des lois (OC, t. IV, p. 790: dossier Ms 2506/7), “How bad laws call for even worse ones to halt their effect” [“Comment les mauvaises lois en demandent d’autres plus mauvaises pour arrêter leur effet”]), it appears that in order to preserve itself despotism had to “abuse itself”. But this abuse, which allowed for the maintenance of a military government, does not produce more social and institutional stability than in other despotic states, but rather an escalation of very cruel penal laws, which shows the extreme and more violent face of despotism.

6This representation comes in large part from the Dutch Recueil, which judged very severely the excesses and absurdities of Japanese penal legislation. The immense power of the Japanese “emperor”, and the superposition of crime against the political authority and crime against religion, gave according to Montesquieu an explanation of this reality: “They thus hold the same reasoning with respect to their Emperor as we do with respect to God. The offense is infinite if it offends an infinite being” (“Ils font donc le même raisonnement à l’égard de leur empereur que nous faisons à l’égard de Dieu. La faute est infinie qui offense un être infini”, Spicilège, no. 524). Another explanation might come from the particular nature of the Japanese nation, harsh and headstrong, which has not in its entire history encountered a “wise legislator” capable of correcting behavior with reason and moderation – which was moreover contradictory with the nature of despotic states; for this reason it had reacted to ever harsher and more severe penal laws by progressively raising the level of its capacity for suffering: “there you have the spirit of law in Japan” (EL, VI, 13). The nature of Chinese despotism is quite different, for in China tradition, which is to say the system of rituals, had given the possibility of translating despotism into less violent forms and in a way more rooted in the consciences, even if Montesquieu does not doubt that it is always “the stick that governs China” (EL, VIII, 21).

7Other aspects arouse Montesquieu’s interest for Japanese reality. If the questions bearing on the right of succession or on demography (EL, XXIII) only touch lightly on Japan, the problem of trade interests him much more. As the Spicilège recalls (no. 517, with reference to Kämpfer), Japan can maintain itself outside international commercial relations without the least harm; but Montesquieu draws a conclusion opposite that of the German author: the commercial privileges granted only to the Chinese and the Dutch in fact prove disadvantageous (EL, XX, 8 [9]), whereas Japan could have obtained far superior advantages by liberalizing trade more (EL, XX, 21 [23]), in keeping with the nature of the country and its wealth. From this point of view also, as with respect to penal legislation, the negative singularity of Japan was evident.

8But from the institutional point of view, and particularly when the question is the relation between laws and religion, the example of Japan also takes on particular importance. The excess of penal legislation and repression, already shown earlier, was indeed according to book XXIV of L’Esprit des lois the inevitable end of a system in which religion, the civil and political function of which is always very important for Montesquieu, is very weak. In the absence of recompenses and punishments after death to orient and discipline individual behaviors (the conclusion which Montesquieu draws from a once more not too respectful reading of Kämpfer), punishments and tortures imposed by the laws multiply. With the fundamental function of moderation exercised by religion with relation to civil and penal legislation inexistent, what comes about is increasing excess of the harshness of penalties, and at the same time the impossibility of reaching a point of equilibrium and stability.

9This integrally negative image of Japan from the institutional and civil point of view, which shows the extreme and most detestable face of a system already detestable in itself such as despotism, confirms, in the general picture Montesquieu paints of the world, that of the “moral antipodes of the West” which the literature of the 16th and 17th centuries, largely missionary, had contributed to affirming, and which would long remain a schema of solid reading in European culture.


Muriel Dodds, Les Récits de voyages sources de “L’Esprit des lois” de Montesquieu, Paris: Honoré Champion, 1929 (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1980).

Rolando Minuti, “La ‘tirannia delle leggi’: note sul Giappone di Montesquieu”, Studi Settecenteschi 17 (1997), p. 83-110.

Bibliographical reference

Minuti Rolando , « Japan », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL : https://dictionnaire-montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/fr/article/dem-1377668415-en/en